The origin of towns in medieval Europe and the role of commerce therein has been one of the dominant themes of European social, institutional and economic history. As an intellectual problem it has been extremely challenging, and the ingenuous conundrum of whether incipient urbanism provided a spur to commercial revival or whether commercial revival galvanized the formation of cities has underlam much of the significant work in these fields during the past quarter- century.
General themes of European social history have been synthesized in Spain somewhat later than in other countries. What Valdeavellano does in this book (a popularly-priced re-edition of his discourse of reception into the Royal Academy of History, Sobre los burgos y los burgueses de la España medieval, Madrid, 1960) is to apply the main lines of the discussion, as formulated by Pirenne and modified by later institutional historians, to the Spanish case—an enterprise exactly parallel to the same author’s treatment of feudalism, published as an annex to his own Spanish translation of F. L. Ganshofs classic Feudalism (El feudalismo, Barcelona, 1963). Much of the secondary literature cited was written in the 1920s and 1930s, suggesting that the Spanish Civil War impeded a more contemporaneous synthesis.
Valdeavellano’s lucid exposition begins with a survey of the literature which is highly dependent on Pirenne, who believed that commercial revival preceded and to a great extent determined the development of West European cities. Valdeavellano accepts this view for some Spanish towns only. The typical burgo, which developed as a commercial suburb outside the walls of a castle or monastery, seems to have been a French importation and is only found, therefore, in Catalonia where French influence was strong, and along the road to Compostela where extramural settlements of French merchants grew up in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries at Jaca, Pamplona, Estella, Logroño, Nájera, Burgos, Sahagún, León, and Compostela itself. The documentation of all of these early urban agglomerations occupies much of Valdeavellano’s narrative.
It will be noted that, with the exception of Burgos, this type of urban form, common to most of Western Europe, is entirely lacking in Castile. Here the typical towns (e.g. Salamanca, Avila, Valladolid, Segovia) were military in character, supported by a pastoral economy and by booty gained from frontier warfare, and were noteworthy for their relative lack of commercial organization. Because of this, Castilian town life was undernourished; there was a notable lack of bourgeois consciousness or class pride, and Castilian burghers concentrated most of their energies on gaining the rungs of the lower nobility.
Valdeavellano’s approach may strike American urban historians as excessively legalistic and institutional. Great emphasis is placed on terminology (when and where does the term bur gum first appear? How is the use of burgum differentiated from that of oppidump etc.) Nevertheless, combining this work with Valdeavellano’s study of feudalism, the historian discovers a Castilian society with a highly idiosyncratic constellation of institutions, which set it apart from northern Portugal, Galicia, Navarre, Alto Aragón, and Catalonia, all of whose institutions have a markedly Frankish cast. This book should be read by all who seek to understand the origins of Castile’s institutional and social uniqueness.